Japan challenges student's comfort zone, leads him to new career goal

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David Sullivan, in gray vest, spoke to representatives from the Tochigi Prefecture, including Gov. Tomikazu Fukuda, and IUPUI about how to improve the exchange program and how to prepare Japanese students to study in the United States. Photo courtesy of the IUPUI Office of International Affairs

American students at IUPUI head overseas searching for a variety of things -- improved language proficiency, broader cultural horizons, international work experience, a shakeup to everyday life. David Sullivan was looking for one or more of those things as well. What he didn't bargain for, however, was a typhoon, a virus or the spark for a new professional venture.

As part of the IUPUI Hakuoh Program, which began in 2005, Sullivan studied at Hakuoh University in Japan for the 2015-16 school year. There, he enrolled full time in language and culture courses, but he learned just as much away from campus as he did in the classroom.

Sullivan's apartment in Tochigi, Japan, called Sunny Heights, sounds pleasant and, well, sunny. It was, for the most part -- until a typhoon blew through the city. Sullivan initially tried to bail seeping water out of his first-floor apartment using a pan. But as the situation deteriorated, he and his roommate realized they were in over their heads.

The floodwaters outside eventually reached as high as Sullivan's chest. By that time, he'd also reached the limit of what he could take of the pain from a mysterious illness. With most people being evacuated by boat, the American waded through the water, holding his possessions overhead, to the nearest hospital.

Even then, however, he wasn't in the clear. A mistranslation resulted in him being treated for constipation, not the virus he had contracted. Add to that a lack of running water, and therefore no working bathrooms, and Sullivan was primed for a disastrous experience abroad.

It turned out to be anything but. Appropriate medical care put Sullivan's stomach back in working order, and his adoptive school and community showed a dogged commitment that impressed the visiting student.

"The support staff at Hakuoh was fantastic. Anything that happened, they were there for you," Sullivan said. "When the flood happened, they got us reimbursement from the school, and they applied to the government to get us disaster relief. The community came in and cleaned up everything for us and helped us get a new home. It was fantastic. I've never seen anything like it in my life."

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Delegates from the Tochigi Prefecture met with IUPUI as part of their visit with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and the Japan-America Society of Indiana. Photo courtesy of the IUPUI Office of International Affairs

Sullivan continued to sing Tochigi's praises after he returned to Indianapolis. The IUPUI Office of International Affairs hosted a delegation headed by the governor of Tochigi Prefecture, Tomikazu Fukuda, as part of a larger visit with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and Japan-America Society of Indiana. At the governor's request, Sullivan presented on how the exchange program could be improved and how Japanese students can better prepare for studying in the United States.

When asked for this story about his biggest takeaway from studying in Japan for a year, Sullivan said only half-jokingly, "If I can get out of a flood alive, I think I can do anything." Then, more seriously, "It pays more, by such a large amount, to branch out than to sit in your comfort zone.

"I can't express how much I learned from meeting people who weren't just part of the school or weren't part of the foreign exchange group. I made lifelong friends who I never would have met otherwise. I ended up getting a part-time job with somebody who was a business owner in Japan, watching him work and learning how he interacts with the students."

The business owner Sullivan connected with ran a local café that happened to be a life raft for the American.

"After all that happened," Sullivan said, referring to the flood and illness, "I was kind of depressed. I was like, 'I don't want to be alone in my own head. I'm going to go out every day and just force myself to at least go get some coffee.' So I found this local coffee shop. The owner slowly introduced me to more people.

"Then, later in the year, he asked me if I'd like to do an English-tutoring session and teach some of the patrons for an event, just teach them English for the night. When we were done, he said, 'How would you like to keep doing this as a part-time job? Everybody loves it, and we'd like for you to continue doing it.'"

Sullivan continued teaching fellow café-goers. It was a great opportunity. Majoring in Japanese language and minoring in international relations, he plans to teach and eventually work as an interpreter. Less expected, however, was the entrepreneurial bug he caught in the process.

"I'm currently a bartender and a waiter here; I work at Harry and Izzy's in the airport. So when I got home, I was talking to all these different people from different cultures, and I was like, 'This would be fun on a daily basis.' And if you're near Tokyo, you're going to meet people from different cultures all the time. I thought, 'What if I just open my own bar? I love bartending and I love talking to people, so it's the perfect match,'" Sullivan said. "Watching him own his own business, loving it, and going to all these coffee conferences to improve himself. I thought, 'I could totally do that. That's what I want to do.'"

Sullivan still plans to pursue interpreting in the short term, but his goals no longer end there. All in all, he might have gotten more than he bargained for from his study abroad experience, but as he will tell you, it pays to get out of your comfort zone.